Ichikawa, like many Japanese filmmakers, is unfortunately only spottily represented on DVD in the United States. Criterion has released two of his WWII films, The Burmese Harp and Fires on the Plain (more on these presently), Tokyo Olympiad, a well-regarded documentary about the 1964 Tokyo Olympics which now appears to be out of print, and The Makioka Sisters, an adaptation of the Tanizaki novel of the same name. Criterion has also made available on Hulu Odd Obsession—another Tanizaki adaptation, this time of his late novel The Key, which hints at the more explicit sexual concerns of the New Wave—It Isn’t Easy Being Two, a film about early childhood, and Princess from the Moon, which, as far as I can tell, narrates a Close Encounters-style version of the classic Japanese tale of “The Bamboo Cutter’s Daughter.” I haven’t seen these last two because they don’t appeal to me, I haven’t seen The Makioka Sisters because I want to read the novel first, and I haven’t seen Tokyo Olympiad because I can’t find it. This means that my entire experience of Ichikawa’s cinema is confined to The Burmese Harp, Odd Obsession, and Fires on the Plain.
In his prime—the late fifties and early sixties—Ichikawa’s films were all scripted by his wife, Natto Wada, who became disillusioned with Japanese cinema in 1965 and retired, allegedly triggering a marked decline in the quality of Ichikawa’s films. However, in 1956, when The Burmese Harp was released, the Ichikawa-Wada partnership was still going strong and the result is one of the most enigmatic war movies you’re ever likely to see. Set in Burma at the end of WWII, the film depicts a close-knit Japanese army unit as they surrender to British forces. The unit’s captain is a musician and he’s turned his force into a choir and they frequently raise morale by joining together in song, all to the accompaniment of the titular Burmese harp, played by a soldier named Mizushima. For reference purposes, a Burmese harp looks like this:
Now, the exact nature of Mizushima’s problem is left unclear for most of the movie. But he seems to have been cast in the role of an everyman confronted with the violence of historical forces beyond his control. And, one drop of water in a sea of human suffering though he may be, he takes it upon himself to try to restore peace to the world, or at least to the little patch of Burma where he finds himself. One is reminded of the naïve/idiot character played by Jim Caviezel in Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line who, in an unlikely poetic outburst, asks, “What is this war within nature? Why must the land contend with the sea? [etc., etc., typical Malick pseudo-philosphy.]” But Mizushima is asking the same questions and Ichikawa’s film is similar to Malick’s in that it places its human drama within a broader landscape of great natural beauty (although they’re both tropical, Burma possesses an austerity lacking in the unimpeded fecundity of Guadalcanal).
The Burmese Harp climaxes with Mizushima asking why such suffering has to exist in the world and concluding that it is not for humans to know the answers to such questions, but merely to do their best to alleviate that suffering. And this is where they lose me. Because the suffering experienced by millions upon millions of people in the Second World War was not inexplicable; it was the product of concrete, readily understandable historical processes; first and foremost—in the Asia-Pacific theater—the rise of Japanese militarism and imperialism. To ascribe the war to unknowable mystical forces is a cop-out and it undermines the deeply felt humaneness that animates much of Ichikawa’s film. There is great compassion and even optimism on display here, in marked contrast to Fires on the Plain (1959), an unrelenting nightmare about the few survivors of a Japanese army unit trying hopelessly to evacuate from a Filipino island while being picked off by unseen American forces and ravaged by starvation. In The Burmese Harp, Mizushima’s comrades want to survive the war in part so that they can return home and rebuild Japan. In Fires on the Plain, nobody is thinking that far ahead. There will be no recourse to mysticism in this film, nor will there we be any trace of hope. Perhaps, if one were to sit down to watch the two movies, it would be good to watch The Burmese Harp last, so that one might retain greater hope for humanity.